Final cotillion figure for the month! Boarding House straddles the line between comedy and horror, making it perfect for Halloween. Along with being probably the single weirdest cotillion figure I've ever seen, which is saying a lot, it's also the most elaborate, requiring the construction of a special trick table along with props and costumes for some of the dancers. The figure is taken from St. Louis dancing master Jacob Mahler's 1900 compilation Original Cotillion Figures, in which it was attributed to Brooklyn dancing master William Pitt Rivers. After reading through this figure, I'm not sure I'd have wanted to have him as my dancing master!
I'll include the full original description below, but since it is rather lengthy, I'll start with the requirements and process for the figure.
Props and costumes:
- Four aprons and caps for the "waitresses"
- A chef hat and long apron for the "chef"
- A cap for the "hall boy"
- A wig or false moustache for the "clerk" (and perhaps a reservation book?)
- A high collar for the "head waiter"
- Four mysterious parcels, contents unspecified
- Screens to separate part of the ballroom into a "dining room"
- A special table made with four neck-sized holes down the center; see construction details below
- Four short stools that fit under the table
- Four chairs, set up around the table
- Four covers large enough to accommodate a human head, each labeled with the name of a dish
Are you afraid yet?
Here's how it works:
Four couples dance, then separate and receive parcels containing the costume items for the waitresses and the four male roles (chef, hall boy, clerk, head waiter). They put on their costumes and move to the screened off dining room area, setting themselves up as follows:
- The clerk and hall boy just outside the door to register guests.
- The chef at one end of the dining-room.
- The waitresses behind the chairs.
Four more couples now dance, then separate, the ladies receiving the unspecified parcels while the gentlemen proceed into the dining room. There, they will sit on the stools and the two parts of the dining room table will be closed around their necks so as to give the appearance of four severed heads sitting on the table. (Are you horrified yet?) The waitresses put the covers over the heads.
The ladies now approach the clerk, presumably to confirm that they have a reservation, throw their mysterious parcels to the hall boy, and proceed into the dining-room to take seats around the table. They place orders with the head waiter from the four available dishes, and the waitresses whisk the covers away, revealing the heads of the gentlemen "dishes" selected by each lady. The chef has no special function beyond standing around, but I suppose he could cackle wildly at this point to add to the general insanity.
Once everyone finishes either laughing or screaming, the gentlemen are extracted from the table and dance with the ladies who picked their "dish", while the four costumed gentlemen dance with the four "waitresses".
Should the organizers so desire, there can be more than four couples in the second part; the number is limited only by the number of neck-holes in the table. One could also run the "dish selection" part of the figure several times, enabling everyone in the cotillion to experience the severed-head effect.
Note that if the gentlemen are of radically different heights it's going to be tricky to get them comfortably arranged in the neck-holes. The table should probably be as high as is realistic, and the stools of varying heights. Fortunately, they don't have to be in position for long!
I really have to wonder what was going through the mind of William Pitt Rivers when he devised this figure. Even by the standards of Victorian cotillions, which would provide interesting fodder for a PhD thesis in psychology, this figure is way out there, more like a modern haunted-house trick than a normal dance party game.
I don't think Boarding House requires any further commentary. But if you're having a Halloween ball, and are willing to go to the trouble of assembling the props, the costumes, and the extra parcels that seem to exist for no purpose except to let the ladies use the "hall boy" for target practice, Boarding House will certainly ensure that the evening is...memorable.
Comic Figure -- Boarding House.
Wm. Pitt Rivers.
Preparation -- Arrange screens to represent dining-room. Provide a long portable table with openings sufficiently large to allow four, six or eight heads to pass through (as may be desired), also provide an equal number of chairs, and covers for the heads, and stools to sit upon. Each cover should be marked to indicate some meat or vegetable. Aprons and caps should be worn by the ladies representing waitresses, and a white headgear and long apron for the gentleman taking the part of chef. Wig (fancy) or false moustache for the clerk. A large high collar for the head waiter and a cap for the hall boy (the coat tails may be fastened up inside giving a fair imitation of a hall boy's coat).
Explanation of Figure for Eight Couple.
Four couple lead off with a waltz; on reaching the head of the room they will each be presented with a parcel, they will immediately proceed to attire themselves with the contents of the parcel received; after they have done so, they take their places as follows: Clerk at desk. Head waiter at entrance to dining-room. Hall boy at side of desk (in front). Chef in rear of dining-room as if looking in from kitchen. The four ladies will stand, each at the back of a chair. The picture is not exposed however until the next four couple appear on the scene. They follow the first four in a similar manner. The four gentlemen take their places under the table with their heads projecting, the four waitresses will place the covers over their heads. Then the four ladies (their partners) are admitted, they enter the office each throwing a parcel at the hall boy, who catches them as best he can; then they register and are shown into the dining-room by the head waiter. They choose their own seats and accept the gentleman for a partner who happens to represent the meat or vegetable they choose. They then dance together. The remaining four gentlemen select a partner (the waitresses). They all dance in costume as described above.
Note -- The table may be made simply as follows: Take two boards and saw out half a circle (as far apart as may be desired) on one side of each board, fasten four legs, one at the corner of each board, the table is separated in center and shoved together when the men have taken their seats upon the stools; when the table is put into proper position the gentlemen' heads will appear above the boards.